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STEM stars

Bucking the trend, five female Concordians build careers on a math and science foundation
September 23, 2015
By Julie Gedeon

Women remain under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields that also include computer science.

The most recent Statistics Canada data indicate that women accounted for 39 per cent of university graduates aged 24 to 34 with a STEM degree in 2011, compared to 66 per cent in other non-STEM programs. In the Canadian workplace, females account for only 22 per cent of the people employed in STEM fields, and only 9 per cent of Canada’s engineers are female. Women employed in STEM fields also earn on average 7.5 per cent less than their male counterparts, according to a recent Maclean’s article.

Reasons for the discrepancies are varied and complex. The 2013 report Gender-Based Analysis: Quebec Technology Sector concludes that most elementary and high-school girls aren’t provided with the kind of encouragement or role models they need to make them consider pursuing a STEM-field career.

The following highly successful female members of the Concordia family have gone against that tendency — and have become exemplary role

Well-constructed career

Gina Cody Gina Cody, president of engineering consulting firm CCI Group Inc. in Toronto, was chosen as a Great Concordian.

Gina Cody, MEng 81, PhD 89, broke new ground at Concordia as the first woman to be awarded a PhD in building engineering at the university. The president of CCI Group Inc., a leading national engineering consulting firm based in Toronto, says gender issues may well have been present throughout her career, yet she’s never given them much attention or energy.

“I always worked really hard and spoke up for myself,” says Cody, who was named one of Canada’s Top Women Entrepreneurs by Profit magazine in 2010. “If you do your work well, people remember — especially if you’re a woman — because there are some individuals who still don’t expect that.”

The youngest of five children, Cody always had an innate curiosity about how things fit together. “If a table broke, I tried to fix it,” she recalls. “If our television stopped working, I took it apart to find out why.”

She knew she wanted to focus on structural engineering by the time she entered high school, where she excelled in all her subjects.

At Iran’s Aryamehr (since renamed Sharif) University of Technology, Cody was among the approximately 10 per cent of female students in engineering. After earning her BSc in structural engineering in 1978, she was accepted at McGill University. However, her brother introduced her to Cedric Marsh, who had joined Concordia’s Department of Civil Engineering in 1969 and was a founding member of the university’s Centre for Building Studies.

“He invited me to be his graduate student and, since I found his work in developing a way to make buildings more earthquake-proof to be very interesting, I agreed,” Cody recalls. “Concordia was one of the few universities with a large-scale shaking table at the time, and I used it to test the effectiveness of friction damper devices in making buildings more earthquakeresistant for both my master’s and PhD research work.”

After teaching briefly, she worked for the Ontario government to update the province’s building code. Cody next joined Construction Control (now CCI Group) as an engineer and initially focused on temporary structures, developing a manual for crane operating engineers within a year.

Initially she concentrated on heading up smaller CCI divisions, with some of these departments merging as she proved her management and leadership abilities. “Women in general are very detail-oriented, which makes them really good at handling various challenges,” she says.

Cody sees gender as slowly becoming less of an issue within engineering. “Of course, there will always be somebody who complains about something, but if you know your job and do it well, it’ll be hard to argue with you,” she says. “If women shy away because of the occasional controversy, they’re doing a disservice to the women who worked hard to advance gender equality.”

She also encourages women to find ways to work while raising a family. “I realize that not everyone is fortunate to have a very supportive husband and/or be able to hire full-time help, like I did, to raise my two daughters,” she says. “But it’s important for both parents to assume equal responsibility for childrearing and, with affordable daycare now, there are more options.”

Sustainable engineering pioneer

Catherine Mulligan Catherine Mulligan is associate professor in Concordia’s Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering. She was awarded the Concordia Research Chair in Environmental Engineering in 2002 and has won the Petro-Canada young innovator award twice.

Catherine Mulligan, a professor in the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering and the director of Concordia’s Institute for Water, Energy and Sustainable Systems, encountered a few raised eyebrows when she first told people she was studying chemical engineering.

“When you find something that you love doing, you don’t let anyone discourage you from pursuing it,” she insists.

Fortunately, Mulligan was encouraged by her family in her pursuit of math and sciences. “My mother suggested I apply for chemical engineering after she saw an ad for a chemical engineer in the newspaper,” she recalls.

She first became involved in exploring bacteria for the production of an environmentally friendly cleaning agent as part of a summer research fellowship. “We looked at some of the bacteria that could produce these surfactants and how we could screen for these bacteria,” she says. Mulligan subsequently worked for the Biotechnology Research Institute of the National Research Council and SNC Research Corp., trying to determine whether the bio-surfactants could be produced at a high enough yield to make them commercially viable. “We obtained a patent to increase the bacteria genetically and we determined that some growth media worked better than others in terms of creating those higher yields,” she explains.

She later completed her PhD in geoenvironmental engineering by focusing on whether the bio-surfactants could remove copper, lead, zinc and other heavy metals from contaminated soils. “Everyone uses these kinds of washing agents now, but I was among the first to do so,” she says.

Some of her other research has involved testing a wastewater treatment system at various industries, including a brewery and potato chip factory. “We also captured air solvents at a printing facility, extracting the chemicals out of the air, solubilizing them in water and then biodegrading them.”

Being a relatively new field, biochemical engineering has not had such a male-dominated past. “The classes have always tended to have more female students than if, for example, you went straight into other engineering courses,” Mulligan says. “The environmental fields also tend to attract more females who want to make things better in the world.”

Mulligan also notices that female students take their studies very seriously and end up winning more of the scholarly awards as a result. “Maybe it’s because they feel they have to prove themselves from the outset,” she says. “As far as industry goes, I believe women are given equal opportunity and it’s up to them what to make of it.”

The engineering fields are changing, she adds. With various stakeholders more engaged in projects, engineers must speak more often with individuals and groups with technical and nontechnical backgrounds. “And women tend to be good at communicating,” Mulligan says.

As the director of the Concordia Institute for Water, Energy and Sustainable Systems, Mulligan is focused on getting all students to become well-rounded engineers by considering the environmental, social and economic aspects of every project.

Socially conscious investor

Rana Ghorayeb Rana Ghorayeb is vice-president responsible for Infrastructure Transactions at the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. At Concordia she learned about value engineering, which involves finding less costly materials without sacrificing quality.

Rana Ghorayeb, BA 97, MEng 03, loves her job as vice-president responsible for Infrastructure Transactions at the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, based in Montreal. “It pulls together everything I’ve learnt over the years,” she says. “And I’m increasing the value of pension funds in a country that gave my family the chance for a better life.”

She has approved investments in a wide array of infrastructure and energy projects globally, including for Heathrow Airport, public-private partnerships in Australia, gas powergenerating plants in the United States and the world’s largest offshore wind platform in the United Kingdom.

Ghorayeb’s work is fuelled by her passion for science and giving back to society through solid investments. They have been her primary drivers since immigrating with her family to Montreal from Lebanon when she was five. “My dad was an agricultural engineer, so he spent a lot of time explaining how nature, chemicals, medicine and other things work,” she says.

After taking advanced math and sciences in CEGEP, Ghorayeb remained unsure about whether to pursue engineering or architecture. A friend recommended urban planning to give her a macro perspective. “I knew after the first year that engineering was for me, because I prefer function over form,” she says. “But I decided to complete the three-year BA in urban studies with a specialization in urban planning, knowing it would be complementary to my career — and it has been.”

Concordia granted her a year of independent study to work towards a master of building engineering degree with a specialization in construction management without first having to complete a bachelor in engineering. “I worked at Tridome Construction as a cost estimator during the day and studied every night for three years,” she says.

She later enrolled in the Master of Science – Finance program at New York University, focusing on real-estate investment. Encountering the world’s largest and most sophisticated realestate investment market in the Big Apple was as valuable as the classroom learning, she says.

Upon graduation, Ghorayeb was hired as an acquisition associate by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association – College Retirement Equities Fund, “my chance to learn from some of the best investors,” she says. “It was also my opportunity to wisely invest teachers’ pensions, and I would be nowhere without all the great teachers I’ve had.”

She later gained international experience as vice-president in Acquisitions at J.P. Morgan, responsible for France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, as well as deals in several other European countries. “My engineering degree and my ability to speak French have been my aces,” she says.

Ghorayeb did well at J.P. Morgan but wanted to return to Canada for the birth of her son in 2010. She ran her own consulting firm for a year with projects in the U.S., U.K., Middle East and New Zealand, but jumped when the Caisse position became available. “I feel I am doing something really important by carefully reinvesting Quebecers’ pension funds and helping other economies through infrastructure and energy investments at the same time,” she says.

She believes it’s important for women to be themselves and play to their strengths. “Our instincts are good and we’re generally less risk-taking than men,” Ghorayeb points out. “At the same time, we can learn from men and apply the 80/20 rule, where 80 per cent is essential and the remaining 20 per cent isn’t always worth arguing or fussing about in the grand scheme of things.”

Pharmaceutical achiever

Lyne Fortin Lyne Fortin has worked through a series of positions in the pharmaceutical industry and is now senior vice-president at Theratechnologies Inc. in Montreal.

Lyne Fortin, MBA 84, has worked her way up through a number of marketing, sales and management positions within the pharmaceutical industry to her current role as senior vice-president and chief commercial officer at Theratechnologies Inc. in Montreal. Her career milestones include being the first woman promoted to an executive position at Merck Canada Human Health.

Fortin’s business acumen is backed by a solid foundation in science. When scientists discuss medical research, she knows exactly what they’re saying. Inspired by a cousin who worked as a pharmacist, she earned a bachelor in pharmacy degree from Université de Montréal in 1982 and completed internships as a hospital and retail pharmacist. “But the business side of the pharmaceutical industry held a stronger interest for me, along with greater opportunities to move up into management positions,” she says.

She applied to Concordia’s full-time MBA program while working part-time as a pharmacist. “I appreciated the program accepting young people who didn’t yet have business experience, and it was a way to improve my English,” Fortin says. “The first semester was intimidating but I was voted president of the Commerce Graduate Students Association during my second year.”

As her major project, she arranged to do marketing research for Merck Frosst and the company hired her at the first opportunity a year later. “Over the next 27 years, I worked my way from the bottom through 18 different positions, until I became vice-president,” Fortin says. “Management was aware of the lack of women in higher positions and mapped a clear path that enabled me to move up at a fairly rapid pace after the successful completion of each assignment, which included gaining international experience.”

Relatively few pharmacists were venturing into corporate positions at the time. “I was the only woman with a pharmacy background in the marketing and sales arena for a while, but I had female colleagues in clinical research, regulatory affairs and policy planning,” Fortin says.

Today there are more females than males in the sales positions, yet Fortin says companies realize they still have a way to go to achieve a healthy diversity at the executive levels. “If you let a company with the right mindset know that you’re willing to learn and work hard to move up, you are quite likely to find the mentors eager to support your career advancement,” she says.

Dawn Svoronos, one of Fortin’s past supervisors and mentors from Merck, approached her two years ago to lead the commercialization of a product discovered in Montreal at Theratechnologies. “It’s exciting to me that this specialty pharmaceutical company has developed a medication that reduces the accumulation of visceral fat that builds in the abdomen when people live with HIV,” Fortin says.

She recently achieved yet another of her goals when she was named to the board of directors of Telesta Therapeutics Inc., a biotechnology company based in Pointe Claire, Que. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the company’s Biologics License Application for its non-muscle invasive bladder cancer treatment. “It’s really interesting from a science perspective to be involved in this company breaking new ground regarding a condition for which the only other alternative is the surgical removal of the bladder,” Fortin says.

Everything relates back to the science that Fortin pursued as a result of being inspired by passionate high-school science teachers. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new in my business,” she says.

Problem solver

Zeynep Emir Zeynep Emir is president of Montreal-based engineering consulting firm Revay & Associates. She says no one ever challenges her abilities because she’s female. “My credentials are too well established.”

Zeynep Emir, BEng 89, is president of Revay and Associates Limited, a Canadian consulting firm specializing in construction dispute resolution for infrastructure, industrial, institutional and commercial projects. The disputes are most often related to construction projects that have incurred delays and/ or cost overruns.

“We do a forensic analysis to determine who or what caused the delays or cost overruns,” she says. “Most of the cases we work on are resolved out of court. Only five to 10 per cent end up in arbitration or litigation.”

She advises young engineers to identify helpful mentors. Hired by Revay and Associates after graduating from Concordia, Emir remains grateful for the mentorship of the company’s founder. “I have Stephen Revay to thank for most of what I’ve achieved,” she says. “He taught me not only the technical aspects of the business, but also how to engage with clients by taking me to meetings from the very start.”

Emir joined Revay and Associates in 1990, became a partner eight years later, and the Montreal branch manager in 2000. During this time, she also earned an MBA from McGill University. She was subsequently appointed vicepresident of the Eastern region, and became president two years ago.

As a girl, math came easily to Emir. She had planned to study finance at an Istanbul university but her parents, who had already emigrated from Turkey, wanted her to live in Canada.

Emir was accepted to Concordia’s Department of Psychology. “The psychology courses were interesting but I didn’t see how it would give me the career I wanted without my first having to distinguish myself in the field with a master's or PhD degree.”

She already had it in mind to follow in the footsteps of her older brother, who was studying civil engineering. “I wanted an undergraduate degree that would immediately give me some career options,” she says.

When Emir transferred into civil engineering in 1985, she was one of only three women in her class — but never felt any gender bias. “Quite the contrary,” she emphasizes. “The male students and professors always made us feel very accepted in the classes and social activities.”

She notes the construction industry remains male-dominated. “We’re only two women among the 80 directors on the board for the Canadian Construction Association,” she points out. “But there are more and more women becoming engineers now.”

Half of the junior engineers at Revay and Associates are women. “I try to encourage them not to put their careers by the wayside when they start a family,” Emir says. “My son is my number-one priority, but I also did a lot of planning — and forewent considerable sleep — so that I could also do my job. It is possible to parent and work — and do both well.”

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